How to build (& get feedback from) your learning network

I had a fascinating conversation yesterday with a teacher who helped me think more concretely about one of the objectives for students who graduate from my school, Triangle Learning Community (TLC). I want students to build a learning network of interesting people they can learn from throughout their lives.

Specifically, over the course of three years when they work on projects at TLC, I want them to develop at least seven contacts around the world who will write Linked-In type recommendations about the kind of work they can do and what it’s like to work with them on a project. Each student’s TLC peers will also provide feedback at the end of each project about what it’s like to work with that student.

I borrowed this “peer feedback” idea from Randy Pausch’s “Last Lecture” at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU).  It’s 70 minute long, but it’s worth taking a look if you have not seen it — he was a star professor of computer science, specializing in human-computer interaction and design.

Professor Pausch died of complications from pancreatic cancer in his late 40s. He delivered his famous lecture in September of 2007, not long after he’d been diagnosed with cancer, and less than a year before he died in 2008.

This great website I just found while preparing to write this blog post contains both a video of the lecture (with subtitles) and a nice critique of what makes it effective as a speech.

If you prefer to read speeches, here’s the transcript of the speech (though Pausch’s delivery is amazing, and it’s worth watching at least some of the speech).

One of my favorite parts of the “Last Lecture” is where Pausch talks about providing students in his class at CMU (called “Building Virtual Worlds”) with feedback.  He puts up a bar chart where students in his class are listed on a scale labeled “how easy to work with”

Then he says, and this is a transcript from the lecture:

Oh I hear the nervous laughter from the students.  I had forgotten the delayed shock therapy effect of these bar charts.  When you’re taking Building Virtual Worlds, every two weeks we get peer feedback.  We put that all into a big spreadsheet and at the end of the semester, you had three teammates per project, five projects, that’s 15 data points, that’s statistically valid.  And you get a bar chart telling you on a ranking of how easy you are to work with, where you stacked up against your peers.  Boy that’s hard feedback to ignore.  Some still managed. [laughter] But for the most part, people looked at that and went, wow, I’ve got to take it up a notch.  I better start thinking about what I’m saying to people in these meetings.  And that is the best gift an educator can give is to get somebody to become self reflective.


One of my goals at TLC is to help students build self-reflection skill through regular blogging (meta-cognition) about the work that we do. Students at TLC will generally blog twice daily about the work they do when we meet, and twice a week about the math they are learning.

While we’re looking at “The Last Lecture,” here’s another quote from Pausch that has stayed with me:

For context, Pausch managed to get a sabbatical to work at Walt Disney Imagineering, a position he was incredibly excited about.  A woman he worked with at Imagineering said, when they first met:

“I understand you’ve joined the Aladdin Project.  What can you do?”  And [Pausch] said, “well I’m a tenured professor of computer science.”  And she said, “well that’s very nice Professor Boy, but that’s not what I asked.  I said what can you do?” [laughter]

Today’s world is more about the portfolio than the pedigree.  What can students do?  And what are we asking them to do?  TLC aims to bridge the gap between “business as usual” and what’s possible in a 21st century learning environment.

Finally, this is a great short article from Will Richardson, an education reformer who has influenced my work a great deal.  It’s titled: “Are you an Old School or a Bold School? The time is now for some serious reinvention for schools.”

Here’s a great quote about the moment we’re facing:

We’ll soon hold the sum of human information in our palms, and we already carry a connection to over two billion potential teachers around in our pockets. In talking about this disruptive reality last fall, author Clay Christensen said, “I think it will not be long before people will see that those who took their education online will have learned it better than people who got it in the classroom.” Welcome to our moment of change.


Most schools are not embracing this moment of change — they’re doing business as usual (see my earlier post about how it’s a mistake to integrate technology into the existing curriculum — it’s time to re-think the curriculum in light of what’s possible in today’s learning environment).

I don’t want to see virtual learning replace learning in person from a teacher. There’s a lot of value in having students come together in the same physical location to work together and learn from one another. But when they do come together, it should not be to have information delivered to them… it should be to have them work together in small groups on meaningful projects.

And we should slow down so that they have a chance to reflect (a.k.a. “blog”) about what they are learning and also reflect upon how they work with others. To do that, we need to cultivate thoughtful feedback loops and we have to teach young people how to give (and receive) honest and thoughtful feedback.

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About Steve Goldberg

I teach U.S. History at Research Triangle High School, a public charter school in Durham, NC, whose mission is to incubate, prove and scale innovative models of teaching and learning.
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3 Responses to How to build (& get feedback from) your learning network

  1. Hi, Steve,
    I really think this experience would be amazingly beneficial for students. Not only would they be using the tools available to be reflective in their learning and make contact with influential peers and colleagues, but through network-building they would develop working relationships to sustain and support their learning while in school and beyond. It’s really taking the next step in professional learning networks, a difficult step that requires time and energy. Now that the connections are made, what next? How can true collaboration be encouraged and made a fruitful process? Thank you for sharing this!

  2. Steve Goldberg says:

    Thanks, Lyn. My school will be my answer to your question — once I get students making connections, what will they accomplish? I’m betting they will do great things! 🙂 Thanks for commenting (and for inspiring my next blog post — “Why Blog?”)

  3. Leland says:

    Hi, after reading this remarkable post i am as well cheerful to share
    my familiarity here with mates.

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